A fluorescence resonance energy transfer (FRET)-based microbubble contrast agent system was designed to experimentally demonstrate the concept of ultrasound-modulated fluorescence (UMF). Microbubbles were simultaneously labeled with donor and acceptor fluorophores on the surface to minimize self-quenching and maximize FRET. In response to ultrasound, the quenching efficiency was greatly modulated by changing the distance between the donor and acceptor molecules through microbubble size oscillations. Both donors and acceptors exhibited UMF on individual microbubbles. The UMF strength of the donor was more significant compared to that of the acceptor. Furthermore, the UMF of the donor was observed from a microbubble solution in a turbid media. This study exploits the feasibility of donor–acceptor labeled microbubbles as UMF contrast agents.
Bioaffinity conjugation between streptavidin (SA) and biotin has been widely used to link donors and acceptors for investigating the distance-dependent Förster resonance energy transfer (FRET). When studying a commonly used FRET system of (QD-SA)-(biotin-DNA-dye) [donor: quantum dot (QD); acceptor: small organic fluorescent dye; and linker: deoxyribose nucleic acid (DNA) molecule via SA-biotin conjugation], however, a contradictory finding was recently reported in the literature. It was found that the FRET lost its dependence on the number of DNA base pairs when using a phosphate-buffered saline (PBS) solution. We found that the conflicted results were caused by the ionic strength of the adopted buffer solutions. Our results suggest that the dependent FRET on the number of DNA bases is favorable in a low-ionic-strength buffer, whereas in relatively high-ionic-strength buffers, the FRET loses the DNA length dependence. We propose that the independence is mainly caused by the conformational change of DNA molecules from a stretched to a coiled mode when the cations in the high-ionic-strength buffer neutralize the negatively charged backbone of DNA molecules, thereby bringing the acceptors close to the donors.
Ultrasound-modulated fluorescence (UMF) imaging has been proposed to provide fluorescent contrast while maintaining ultrasound resolution in an optical-scattering medium (such as biological tissue). The major challenge is to extract the weakly modulated fluorescent signal from a bright and unmodulated background. UMF was experimentally demonstrated based on fluorophore-labeled microbubble contrast agents. These contrast agents were produced by conjugating N-hydroxysuccinimide (NHS)-ester-attached fluorophores on the surface of amine-functionalized microbubbles. The fluorophore surface concentration was controlled so that a significant self-quenching effect occurred when no ultrasound was applied. The intensity of the fluorescent emission was modulated when microbubbles were oscillated by ultrasound pulses, presented as UMF signal. Our results demonstrated that the UMF signals were highly dependent on the microbubbles’ oscillation amplitude and the initial surface fluorophore-quenching status. A maximum of ∼42% UMF modulation depth was achieved with a single microbubble under an ultrasound peak-to-peak pressure of 675 kPa. Further, UMF was detected from a 500-μm tube filled with contrast agents in water and scattering media with ultrasound resolution. These results indicate that ultrasound-modulated fluorescent microbubble contrast agents can potentially be used for fluorescence-based molecular imaging with ultrasound resolution in the future.